John Custer The Indestructable Godfather of NC Music Industry
Written by Rob Grissom
If you have ever heard a great band from North Carolina, chances are it was produced by the legendary Cary, NC resident John Custer. From his start as a accomplished session guitarist in New York, through his work at Columbia Records and producing in his own studio… he has experienced it all. About a year ago, he even cheated death in a horrific traffic accident and actually died for five minutes… the Lord was not ready for John just yet…his job here was not complete… more bands needed to be heard . His soft-spoken worldly wisdom is heralded by the hoards of musicians he has mentored over the decades and he not always told you what you wanted to hear…but it is the truth. Judging from his past clients comedian Rich Hall, Corrosion of Conformity (COC), Cry of Love, Automatic Slim, DAG, singer/songwriter Chris Whitley, Gran Torino, and Jive Mother Mary among others…to his newest protégés BIG Something, Army of Dog, and The Sawyer Family…Mr. Custer is dedicated as ever to his artful craft. The fun-loving, groove- rock Burlington, NC band BIG Something exclaimed in an interview with Pick-Up Promotions about working with the living legend, “He is really about trying to capture that one take where even your mistakes can sound really cool. It forced us to grow as artists and musicians. He gave this CD some balls. It was like getting schooled by a rock’n’roll Jedi master”.
John Custer learned early in his life he wanted to be in the music biz by constantly playing with his father Don Custer’s forbidden guitar every chance he could. His professional career began to take shape as a studio session guitarist in New York at the world famous Vision Sound Studios working on national television advertisements for VH1, Ford Motor Company, Coca Cola and other global conglomerates. This type of work just did not provide Custer with the musical satisfaction his mind and soul dearly craved. He started producing various musicians work in 1986 and began to develop Raleigh, NC rockers Cry of Love in 1989 and secured a position with Columbia Records in 1990 with a priority on new talent development. Cry of Love featured the southern guitar virtuoso Audley Freed, vocals and guitar by Pee Wee Watson (PKM), the bass and vocals of Robert Kearns and Jason Patterson whacking the skins…this band was en route for definite success. Within two years, Watson departed the band and was replaced with Kelly Holland taking command of the vocal duties. Custer produced their 1993 splendid, hit-packed debut album, “Brother” (Columbia Records), boasting Billboard’s Mainstream Rock No.1 hit “Peace Pipe, No.2 smash “Bad Thing”, No.13 ranked tune “Too Cold in the Winter”. The band made the bill of the UK world renowned Monsters of Rock Festival the following year. After this show, Kelly Holland was “let go” from his vocal duties and they attempted to regain the success they achieved with “Brother”. The 1997 offering “Diamonds and Debris” with ex-Lynch Mob and later Warrant vocalist Robert Mason. The album provided the track “Sugarcane” which peaked at No.22 on the Billboard charts and the band disbanded shortly thereafter. Check’em out at: https://myspace.com/cryoflovepeacepipe/music/songs or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INxliT-NrxA for a video of their No.1 hit “Peace Pipe”.
During the same time frame, Custer started working with the Raleigh, NC area punk/thrash group Corrosion of Conformity (COC). The group had offered up three small-scale production albums with little acclaim prior to collaborating with Custer on the 1991 “Blind” album and were ultimately signed to Columbia Records. Many record labels later and several line up changes and rotations through the years…one aspect has been consistent…every album since “Blind” has been produced by Mr. Custer.
Reed Mullin, drummer and a founding member of COC, told 3Dot Mag while making their chart-topping 2012 self-titled release and the EP “Megalodon”, the band and Custer “worked together as a single organism”. Custer told 3Dot Mag in a recent interview, “new COC is currently in progress with Pepper Keenan in the studio”. That’s right…PEPPER IS BACK !!! Taking a break from his tenure with DOWN and reuniting with his old band mates Woody Weatherman, Mike Dean, and Reed Mullin…what die hard fans have been patiently awaiting. With Keenan’s vocals and guitar on the 1996 Custer produced “Wiseblood” album, the track “Drowning in a Daydream” earned Custer and the band a Grammy nomination. I, along with the drones of Pep-loving longtime fans, anxiously await the new tunes and tour in 2014 with Pepper back home with his longtime brothers… even if it is not a permanent move. Check COC out at http://www.coc.com/ or a video of their Grammy nominated tune “Drowning in a Daydream” from 1996. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqfPv93Zonw
Not all of Custer’s focus was with COC or Cry of Love, even though it may appear so. During this same time, he was developing two other up-and-coming bands. In 1989, the alt-funky rock outfit DAG consisting of Bobby Patterson on vocals and bass, Brian Dennis on guitar, drumming superstar Kenny Soule, formerly of Nantucket and PKM fame, and Doug Jervey on keyboards, was introduced to the world and swept up by Columbia Records. Custer wrote or co-wrote all the funky rock infused tracks and produced the 1993 album “Righteous” with guest appearances by Muscle Shoals Rythem Section drummer Roger Hawkins and jazz great Jeremy Davenport on the trumpet. The album received rave reviews from the critics and the Quincy Jones publication, Magazine, hailed the album as “…one of the best funk records since 1978. DAG’s debut, Righteous, is definitely some of the most ass-grinding grooves you’ve heard since back in the day”. The band soon released two additional albums with Custer before they parted ways in 1999. Check DAG out in a video from 1998 at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSJLnisgdDA. Custer was also in the process of helping Raleigh, NC hard rockers Automatic Slim with their demo and first album “Invisible and Bulletproof”. Featuring Gene Tart on vocals and Dennis Bandiero on the six-string, with Jimmy Bennett on guitar and Chris Basnight on bass and Michael Batts on the kit… the Slim boys were packing the clubs all over the area. The wisdom from Custer and Kenny Soule proved to be what Slim needed to be well on their way to a ten year run with several other self-produced albums of classic rock’n’roll tunes. Check Automatic Slim out at http://www.reverbnation.com/automaticslim or a recent video clip at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKZ8loXtCUI
The record industry took a head shot of its own at the turn of the century as Napster and other file sharing musical property thieves ran wild and dominated the internet. The last project Custer worked on with Columbia Records was producing and developing various tracks for film star Michael Pitt for a musical project in 2003 and his decade long tenure at Columbia was over. Custer told 3Dot Mag, “ …by mid 2004, the music industry had practically been erased and replaced with the horrid vulgarities of American Idol and all of those horrors”. Custer’s deep-seeded desire for finding and developing budding artists was still on fire…he didn’t require a major label backing to achieve what he wanted. Custer told 3DotMag, “I never wanted to produce Aerosmith or any of those “already huge” bands that asked me because I knew there was talent back here in North Carolina. So, that was always my focus…get the band to the next level… and they were projects I could believe in. I wanted to get them all the way to the Grammys and world-wide audiences, the Major Leagues. That was all. I didn’t care about people who’d already become famous, I cared about the great bands that might go unheard without the right production/direction and so on. So, I remain committed to those bands”. BIG Something is a group of young multi-talented artists from Burlington, NC which really don’t fit the mold of any specific genre. With Nick MacDaniels on lead vocals and guitar, Casey Cranford on sax and EWI, Jesse Hensley on vocals and wailing guitar, Josh Kagel on the keys, Doug Marshall on bass and Doug Vinograd on the drums, BIG Something is a cosmically sonic, multi-layered, rock-funk infused delicious treat… chocked slam full of highly-structured extended jam sessions that keep the party rockin’ all night long. They released their self-titled album recently, with Custer at the helm once again, and has already received multiple high-praised reviews, check it out here: http://www.homegrownmusic.net/product-reviews/big-something-big-something-cd
With upcoming shows in he area go check’em out for yourself. Visit their website for tour dates at: http://www.bigsomething.net. Army of Dog is another group calling Raleigh, NC home and holding down a stall in the Custer Stable of thoroughbred talents. Consisting of Anthony Von Raleigh on vocals and guitar, Joel Pruner on guitar and bass, Mike F. Shelby on lead guitar, Dan Goodwin on bass and guitars, with Perio Beam on the skins, and Lawson Bennett tickling the keys…these guys bring the stoner pop subgenre to a whole new standard and are currently working on new material with Custer. Check them out at: http://www.armyofdogmovement.com. Occupying yet another stall in the Custer stable is The Sawyer Family. Originally from Eugene, OR. This creepy, stoner surf punkabilly, Dick Dale-ish, four piece family band is no newcomer to the scene, they have been around since 2000 primarily rooted on the west coast. With three rotating vocalist, Judge Jarod on a wicked guitar, Dennis “D-SAW” on an equally wicked guitar, Zac slapping the bass violin and Kylsaw on the cans…these guys are a melodic, hypnotic and hydroponic, beautifully chaotic mess of a band, but they work so wonderfully together…and they are not the serial killing family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films… well …ummm… maybe they could be??? Their tunes don’t seem to have any clear direction, at first, but somehow end up getting you to their intended destination completely satisfied and right on time. Sporting tracks titled, “Buried Alive”, “Fistfull of Titties”, to the self-gratifying “Bonerfied”, “I Don’t Need No Skinny Women” and “Impaler”, followed up with a lethal dose of “High Road” …well, you get the picture. If not, go see for yourself at a live show…they are touring now. Or, check’em out at: http://www.reverbnation.com/sawyerfamily. I gotta say, I’m really digging these guys…give them a chance, it kinda grows on you. Mr. Custer …you have your hands full with these three groups, all of them have something different to offer and are certainly one-of-a-kind entrees of artisan tastiness.
All of this did not just fall out of the sky and onto John Custer’s lap. He has certainly paid his dues in an unfriendly and back-stabbing music industry. Having the eyes and ears to see and hear the trends in the industry and the dedication to get results are all keys to his storied success. To find the positives within any band and build upon it to the fullest extent and improve upon the negatives is Custer’s arduous task…and he does it like no other. I’m sure Janine and Don Custer instilled in their son at an early age the character traits John has utilized to follow his dreams…hard work, perseverance, and keen attention to the most miniscule detail. He is not in it for the money, the fame, or anything else but to get great music to the masses. Mr. Custer never over-produces any of his work…what is heard on a recording is how the bands he develops sound live on stage. With all of the specialized engineering tools used in the studio today, he relies on his ears and knowledge to tweak the tunes to a harmonious perfection. If you attend any show of his thoroughbred artists…look around…I’m sure he is there, somewhere, he may even pop-up on stage and join in a tune or two. Over the past thirty years, John Custer has definitely made his parents proud, along with his home state and town, with every record he pours his entire mind and soul into. He could sit back and rest on the laurels of his past successes… but, that’s just not his way. Thanks to the Almighty Above… He allowed John Custer to remain with us to continue providing exceptionally produced tunes. Be assured, if Custer gives any band his stamp of approval…they are certainly worthy of a listen.
To see the photos inside the magazine, visit http://3dotmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/3Dot_Vol3Issue1v333_Spreads3Cover72.pdf